No-Budget Nightmares: Interview with Isle of the Damned director Mark Colegrove and writer Mark Leake


It takes guts to make a tribute to 70s/80s Italian Cannibal movies. Lots of guts. While there’s a certain twisted segment of society who are intimately familiar with titles like Cannibal Holocaust and Make Them Die Slowly, these gut-munchers never captured the public’s imagination in the way their zombie movie cousins have been able to. Even the most notorious titles are more talked about than seen, so it takes some special people to try and make a loving parody of the conventions of the genre, and the fine folks at Dire With Films are certainly special. Isle of the Damned director Mark Colegrove and writer Mark Leake were kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about their Cannibal epic Isle of the Damned.


Sweetback: I really appreciate both of you taking the time to talk to me about Isle of the Damned. To start, let’s talk a little bit about both of your backgrounds. What made you both want to be involved in films, and genre films in particular? And what are some of the films that left a scar on your individual psyches in your early years?


Mark Colegrove: I grew up watching movies like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future over and over again when I was little, so I was always captivated by movies.  When I was a little older, probably around 13 or 14 is when USA Up All Night started airing, and that’s when I became more interested in the cult flicks… Troma in particular.  Throughout High School me and my friend Ken would seek out all the weird shit at the video store, and make little movies for class on our parents VHS cameras… it just sort of progressed from there.  As far as scarring goes… I was brought up Catholic.  I remember my parents flipping through stations when I was around 10 or so, and landing on The Exorcist… right at the pea soup scene.  I must have known what the movie was about, but just watching a minute of it made me afraid for years that I was going to be possessed by the devil at any given point.  I didn’t watch the whole movie until I was much older.


Mark Leake: What got me involved in film? It’s amazing what you get yourself wrapped up in from too much Budweiser and drunken proclamations, such as “If it was me, I would have kicked his ass,” and, “even I could have made a better movie than that!” As for the choice of genre, you can’t make a Lord of the Rings for a hundred bucks, but an Anthropophagus (aka The Grim Reaper); hell, that one you can walk away with change in your pocket. Plus, I find it more enjoyable to watch cannibals castrate city slickers than wonder for three hours whether those clearly gay hobbits are going to turn Samwise onto the “friendship” they keep talking about.


SB: On that note, what interested you about Cannibal films in particular? And what made the genre one that you felt could handle a comedic take?


MC: It’s a pretty bizarre little genre to take on.  The cannibal movies were only popular for a few years and then they all but dissappeared, so that in and of itself was fascinating.  When we did Isle, the popularity of the cannibal films was sorta rising on the underground circuit once again, so we knew there’d be a bit of a built in fanbase just out of curiosity.


Also there are a lot of conventions of the genre that can easily be mocked though, mainly the boldness of packing a film full of gore and rape under the guise of a hokey moralistic message about the nature of humanity.


ML: Well, around 97 is when I first heard about them, and so being a big Dario and Fulci fan, the hunt began. After about a year when I finally got a third generation VHS of Cannibal Holocaust, you can’t imagine the rapture. To watch a movie that was not only good, but completely repulsive too boot: Fuck yea! As for the comedic factor; laughing at the terrible aspects of life is often what makes the world bearable. To simply put it; stress relief, and what better genre to use than one that is notorious for people screaming about the real life animal slaughter ( while they eat their cheese burgers) and the all out cinematic sleaze from lines such as, “you’re just a hot pussied little whore,” to the horrific tribal rituals such as new-born-baby-mud-burials, and large poles stuck up people’s asses.



SB: Despite it not exploding at the box office, it seemed like tributes to Grindhouse cinema really started to rev up after the release of the Tarantino/Rodriguez double-feature Grindhouse. However, you guys were mining that territory back in 2005 with Pleasures of the Damned, and in some of your short films. Did the release of Grindhouse give you any indication that there was a market for the sort of films you wanted to make, and why do you think these tributes – like Machete and Hobo With a Shotgun – have started capturing the public’s attention?


MC: It was definitely encouraging when Grindhouse came out.  We were halfway through shooting Isle at the time (it took 3 years total), so we were actually able to cut together a trailer out of the footage we had shot already for Robert Rodriguez’ fake trailer contest that Hobo With a Shotgun ended up winning.


SB: The IMDB – which of course shouldn’t be taken as gospel – lists that you’ve did some work as a production assistant. Can you speak a little about this experience and what you learned about the entertainment industry through it?


MC: Being a production assistant on a major production is pretty much the most humbling thing anybody can ever do.  I’m grateful for the chances I got, but really loathed the long hours and the egos.  I have fond memories of getting screamed at for handing a producer a Thai menu for example.  On the bigger productions you can also really see firsthand how much money gets wasted.  There are lots of folks being paid good money to stand around and do absolutely nothing… there’ve been times when I was that person.  More power to anybody that can get those gigs I say!


One of the last things I did as a PA though was on a reality TV show, and that was actually a much better experience.  They let me do some camerawork, and everybody was much more laid back.


SB: Can you both speak a little about the development of Dire Wit Films? How did you it first come to be, and what was your initial concept for it?


MC: The name itself came about when my group in film school needed a name to stick on our first short, The Adventures of Fratman & Pledgeboy.  Originally I wanted the website to be sort of like Atom Films, which was big at the time, hosting comedy shorts.  That never really got off the ground, but I kept producing little shorts under the Dire Wit name until eventually linking up with Mark Leake for Pleasures of the Damned and making it a partnership.


ML: I have a feeling that the true history for both of those questions may be lost in the fog of a hazed out barroom memory. Still, Colegrove was definately the visionary when it came to that. Dire Wit was his conception, and one that he has worked hard to make come about. So please buy our movies before we have to prostiute our bodies on the mean streets of Baltimore, soiling the flower of our youth behind a diaper-filled retirment home dumpstster, so we can simply have the joy of entertaining you fine people.



SB: I have to ask this. I was involved in the production of a film where a character wore aviator sunglasses (like Jack Steele does in this film) and avoiding reflections of the crew was a nightmare. Did you run into any trouble while filming? Or, was this not really a concern?


MC: We didn’t think about it much… there’s one scene in the bathroom where we had Larry take the glasses off because of the reflection, but I kind of regret doing it now, because that’s the only scene where you see him without them.  Ultimately, on any medium or wide shot, the reflection will end up beind pretty small in the frame.  I think if the audience is into the movie, they won’t be looking for stuff like that.  Of course, with a film like Isle, that’s “bad on purpose” it would sort of add to the fun.  It’s probably a good idea to avoid extreme close ups though!


SB: What were the entrails actually made out of? The Yamma Yamma tribe members certainly seemed more than willing to chow down on them.


MC: For the most part they were made of gelatin.  Some were actually made with sausage casings.


SB: It takes a special talent to fake that you’re speaking a foreign language, especially when the timing has to be worked out later. What were the actors actually saying on set?


MC: We actually put peanut butter in their mouths like Mr. Ed.  Just kidding… in some scenes it would be gibberish, but most of the time they wouldn’t be saying anything however… we would have a couple folks off camera reading the script aloud and the actors would just move their mouths for the duration that the other person was speaking.


There’s a few specific things you can look for though: when Amy, the pregnant woman looks up at the cannibal in front of her, she says “I can see your balls.”  There’s also a take in the film when Kinkaid and Thompson enter the basement near the end of the film, Kincaid says “When I was young I was molested by a preist named Mark Colegrove.”  to which Thompson responds “Really? I didn’t know you knew Mark Colegrove.”  Maybe when we do a blu-ray we can put a bunch of funny outtakes on there.



SB: Part of both Pleasures of the Damned and Isle of the Damned are their elaborate back-story involving the filmmaker Antonello Giallo. Who came up with the idea of presenting Isle of the Damned as being a “recovered” film, and how did this idea develop?


ML: Well, we started with the platform of a fake Italian Film, then one day Colegrove pulled the Antonello Idea out of his ass, and the rest is history; at least a fake one.


MC: I remember early conversations between me and Leake.  He had always thought, rightly so, that the sound in a lot of no-budget horror flicks sucked… most no-budgets at the time sounded flat.  It takes you out of the experience.  So the thought was that we’d dub it in, and just make it as ridiculous as possible, like a lot of the old Italian flicks, which we were both fans of.


Antonello Giallo was born out of that decision.  We needed a hack director that we could pawn this concept and shitty film off onto. Giallo is sort of the quintessential hack: he rips off other films, his movies are sloppy, he mistreats his actors, etc.  Also, as fans who have constantly searched for “lost” films, and alternate cuts of things, we thought adding a little backstory to each film was fun.  In all the initial marketing for Pleasures, we never mentioned our names and there were no real credits on the end of the original cut.  It was always funny to us read reviews from someone who thought they were getting a real lost film, only to be pissed to find out they’d been duped.  By the time we got around to Isle, the cat was out of the bag, so we opted for real credits at the end.



SB: My own first experience with the film was its absolutely stunning poster which appeared in a number of genre magazines. It’s one of the first times I saw an indie film poster and thought “I have to see this!” Can you both talk a little about marketing the film?


MC: We definitely wanted a standout 70s/80s-style poster, and commissioned an artist here in Baltimore named Charles Stidham to do the artwork.  For the re-release of Pleasures of the Damned we went to Steven Romano out of Texas.


With the release of Isle, we did a couple film fests, but approached mostly weekly or monthly grindhouse style film series’ around the US (and a few outside the US).  We wanted to have the DVD out at the same time the film was screening publicly, so you could buy it at shows and whatnot.  Most film fests won’t screen your work if it’s already out on DVD, and the entry fees can add up pretty quick.  So all in all we racked up over 40 screenings in about a year.  We pressed the DVD ourselves, and were sort of learning as we went, taking out ads in magazines, trying to get as many reviews as possible.  I think we spent close to $1K in shipping alone.  We devoted a year to just marketing it, and I’m glad we retained control over it in the long run.  I don’t think any other company would have pushed it as hard.


ML: All I have to say is that spending that much time on a computer is a total suck-fest. World of Warcraft players should be heralded in our society, not only for their commitment to virginity, but for their mental endurance as well. A month of searching the web for anybody who would take a look at the film was no easy task.



SB: What have the both of you been working on since the release of Isle of the Damned? I’m sure your new project Mutantis will be right up the alley of anyone reading this.


MC: Yeah, Mutantis is our Great American Monster Movie.  It’s sort of a tribute to Don Dohler, who, up until his passing a few years ago, had been making great schlocky stuff here in Baltimore since the 70s.  It’s directed by Kelly Fitzgerald who was our AD on Isle. Like Isle, it’s been a 3 year project, but is just now finishing shooting.


ML: That depends on if whoever is reading this likes to watch monsters rape people, and if you do, don’t be ashamed, you’re not alone…as long as you don’t tell anyone, or like go to work and be like “dude, watch this monster like totally rape this dude; isn’t it funny?” Because then, yes, you will then very likely find yourself absent of friends, because you’re weird.


SB: What’s the future for Dire Wit? What projects are in the pipeline?


MC: I also mentioned earlier another film called 7th Day, that’s currently in the post production stage.  Hopefully we’ll be releasing that early next year.  It’s a pretty dramatic turn compared to the other stuff we’ve put out, but is still gory as hell.  It’s directed by Jason Koch, who is also an amazing FX artist.


We’re also finishing the screenplay for City of the Damned, which has kinda been sitting around for a bit, but now it’s getting a good polish.  Hopefully we can get that off the ground next year!





SB: Anything else to plug?


MC: We’ve also been making a new comedy short each month with our sketch troupe, Strictly Platonic.  Here’s our youtube channel:


ML: Besides my knee-jerk answer of “yea, Colegroves ass,” Two indie features about to hit some horror film fest that are worth your time to watch, Lamplight, and Witche’s Brew.


SB: And finally.. any advice for young film-makers who are looking to have their work seen and distributed?


MC: There’s a lot more avenues popping up every day to have your work seen, so we’ve all got that going for us.  The marketing is just as important as making the film itself, so never assume that your work’s done when the film is.  Unless you don’t want people to see it anyways.  Supposedly you’re supposed to set half your budget aside to market your flick.


ML: First off, do whatever it is that you want to do, because when it comes from your heart than no matter what the outcome there’s some satisfaction to be had, so in ten years from now when your jerking-off into the mayo at the fast food establishment at which you will inevitably work at, you can always find a smile, especially two hours later when you watch those fat bastards, who treat you like shit, unknowingly eat your sperm. Plus, no audience is too small, and no review is unimportant. Lastly, do it yourself. Don’t expect the great distributor to fall from the sky and recognize your brilliance. That type of lazy expectation makes Sheiza porn stars, not Indie gems.






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